Of course Carol Ann’s name is now Madison.
Gil Kenan’s dickless remake of Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic Poltergeist is probably the most unnecessary redux in the perpetual cycle of horror remakes yet. It always feels that way after watching yet another update that doesn’t even appear to be trying to live up to its canonized source material, but I really think this one’s the worst. Kenan’s remake rarely deviates from the 1982 original except to update the technology—now it’s iPhones and flatscreens that hiss with paranormal static. It’s as though everyone figured that kids today would be befuddled at the cathode ray tube that Carol Ann communicated through in the original and the only way to tell this story to those kids is through the devices with which they are familiar. It turns out that no device is more horrifying than relying on old ideas to make new money.
Kenan’s Poltergeist mostly serves to remind you of the original’s frequent brilliant ideas. Back again are the scary tree that seems to be alive while thrashing in the storm and then turns out to be so, ugly clown toys, and the kid who’s afraid of “everything” and is right. The alterations here are almost uniformly for the worst. The head ghostbuster in charge is no longer a delightful little person with a funny voice (Zelda Rubinstein) but a rather bland British guy with a few scars and reality TV fame (Jared Harris as Carrigan Burke). There’s no face-peeling scene, though patriarch Sam Rockwell does have a hallucination that has him thinking he’s vomiting up earthworms into a sink for a moment. That could be a reference to the giant worm Craig T. Nelson threw up in Poltergeist II: The Other Side just as easily as it could be a reference to current trends in composting. Who knows who cares.
A drone is deployed across space and time. A drone. Griffin Bowen (Kyle Catlett) flies his iPad-controlled drone camera into the dimension in which his younger sister Madison (Kennedi Clements) is trapped so that the crew working to get her out can locate her more easily. The vision for that plane of purgatory—a Geiger-esque green-gray lattice work of writhing souls—is the best thing that this Poltergeist has going for it. And it’s captured by a drone. A drone.
We watch that scene from the drone’s point of view, which gives the movie a fleeting found-footage sensibility. So, if you ever wondered what the unseen dimension in Poltergeist would have looked like through a shaky modern camera with a consumer price point, you now have your answer.
The original Poltergeist was released in 1982, less than a year after the kidnapping of Adam Walsh and a few years after the disappearance of Etan Patz. Through media and milk cartons, it was clear in the early ‘80s that the world was a stranger-dangerous place and Poltergeist offered the fantasy of being able to communicate with your missing child and eventually rescue her with your own arms. Thirty-three years later, the cultural context for this Poltergeist remake is: haunted houses are the in thing in horror movies and found footage isn’t entirely obsolete yet. That’s it.
I do have to credit Kenan’s Poltergeist for presenting the most hilarious jump scare I’ve ever seen: a screaming squirrel that tears through Griffin’s attic room. We’re still early into the summer movie season, but that’s twice now that a squirrel has been the highlight of a shitty movie—the first happened in Hot Pursuit when Reese Witherspoon’s coked-up character tells a story about how she saw two squirrels kissing when she was 7 and watched them for way too long. Maybe instead of remakes and haunted houses, Hollywood should start focusing on squirrels. They’ve yet to have their day and they’re way more interesting than this shit.